Collecting rare books is more than just a hobby or a passion, it is an art form. The process is filled with nuances. There are perhaps as many ways to go about forming a collection as there are collectors. However, there are some universal truths that different book collectors around the world follow.
We compiled a brief guide to help you transform your hobby in to an art form. Whether you are just starting out or have been collecting for quite some time, we hope these tips will help grow your rich collection of rare books.
Before we begin, we should remind you that there is a difference between a book collection and a personal library. Both are good and beautiful things to look at, but they are two different sides of a coin. Many of us have personal libraries in our homes. All those used books purchased for college courses, the stack of children’s books peppering the bottom shelf, a shortlist of literary classics, and how-to compendiums for the first-time homeowner. In short, a personal library includes books we’ve acquired in numerous ways, and there’s often not a clear theme present. It’s just a library with many topics in its arsenal. A collection, on the other hand, is a focused endeavor to amass specific types of books, usually of a certain quality.
What to buy
Rare is really a measure of how easy it is to obtain a book. What makes a book collectible is another matter. A collectible book is usually desirable to collectors because of its subject matter, such as chess or ornithology. Other factors include who the author or illustrator is, when and where it was printed, or a special feature on the physical book itself. First editions aren’t always the most valuable and soughtafter, as some would believe. In fact, some later editions of rare books are more desirable because they have additional information or illustrations. Shakespeare’s Third Folio — the third collected edition of his plays — is a famous example of a later printing of a book that has more value than an earlier one.
What you’ll pay
The range of a book’s value varies dramatically. Enthusiasts can find books to suit all budgets. A collector can buy a good condition first edition of one of Ian Fleming's James Bond books anywhere between $160 and $24,500. The price depends on whether it's one of the first or last stories in the series. The first stories are considered more valuable because they were published in smaller quantities, before the Bond phenomenon took off. Proof copies, which are sent to book reviewers prior to first editions, can also be a great find, especially for people interested in owning a piece of the process. Proof copies of J. K. Rowling’s first Potter offering, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, sell for around $6,830. There are only 200 of them.
What to look for
Well-preserved volumes command a higher premium and will last longer if you care for them properly. One can think of condition as a kind of pyramid. For a given work, there might be dozens of copies in scrappy condition, several copies in good condition, but only two or three copies in outstanding condition. Those two or three copies will always be the most desirable and will hold their value better than others. Soiled covers, missing dust jackets, ripped pages, mildewed edges, less-than-sharp corners, and food stains can all decrease the value of a treasured book. Moisture, dust, and direct sunlight are the enemy of books. Apart from physical condition, content contributes meaningfully to a book’s desirability. The most valuable books are those that changed the course of literary history or of human understanding.
Where to buy
Booklovers typically hunt for rare books at auction houses or at online auctions. Some have found treasure while combing charity shops, antique dealers, car boot sales, and flea markets. Research is also an integral part of the acquisition process. Of course, the safest bet is to shop in person at a dealer who offers a lifetime money back guarantee of authenticity, but some rare books can be found only at auction.